FOX 11 Investigates: DA says office is 'overwhelmed' due to lack of staff
MARINETTE COUNTY (WLUK) -- It's a battle in Marinette County between the district attorney, county leaders and the state. Children who are not being taken care of by their parents are caught in the middle.
Allen Brey, who has worked as a prosecutor in Marinette County for more than 20 years, says he doesn't have enough people in his office to handle cases where children are in need of protection or services.
"My office is overwhelmed. I don't have enough staff," Brey said.
You don't have to take his word for it. You can look at the evidence. There are stacks and stacks of cases in his office that are waiting to be processed. Brey says his office has 280 police referrals dating back 18 months.
"We work on the things that are most dangerous in the eyes of the police and most immediate," Brey said.
That's why about two months ago, Brey told the county he would no longer handle CHIPS cases. Those cases involve Children in Need of Protection or Services. Brey says the county's attorney also has the authority to handle CHIPS cases. And his office needs to focus on crime.
"Is there a need to have this done? Yes, there is. Is there a need to prosecute burglars? Yes, there is. Is there a need to prosecute heroin dealers? Yes, there is. But when you have limited resources you have to make the unsavory choices about what you're going to do or not do," Brey told FOX 11 Investigates.
State Rep. John Nygren says the district attorney is playing politics.
"I think it's kind of unfortunate we are where we are on this. Allen decided that he was going to kind of use this as a leverage," Nygren said.
Nygren says CHIPS cases ought to be a priority.
"We don't want the public to ever question that children in danger, endangered children, are not the priority of his office, Marinette County or the State of Wisconsin because that has to be our top priority," Nygren said.
When Brey was asked what he would say to people who think he is complaining in an effort to get more resources, he replied, "It's pretty simple: What don't you want me to do? Cuts have consequences. Not funding an office has consequences. "
Marinette County Administrator Shawn Henessee says in order for the county to handle the cases, it would have to add staff.
"If I fund another position in the corp counsel's office then that means I have to pull money from some other department. That's the difficulty I have," Henessee said. "Whenever you add an additional position or an additional service at Marinette County, we're not like the federal government. We can't print more money. So it has to come from some other place."
Despite the fact that the district attorney's office and the county say they don't have the staff to handle these CHIPS cases, the cases will still be handled. That's because of a court order issued by the judges here in Marinette County.
The judges appointed a special prosecutor to handle the CHIPS cases through the end of the year. After that, starting on January 1st, the cases will again be handle by the district attorney's office. But he will receive some help.
The DA's office currently has two full-time prosecutors and one vacant part-time position. Henessee says the county will pay the difference to make that part-time position full-time for nine months.
After that, Henessee says the hope is that the state picks up the funding.
Since prosecutors are funded by the state, the decision to add any positions in Marinette County is ultimately up to the governor and state lawmakers, like Nygren.
"I think this issue, DA positions, will be a priority again," Nygren said.
Nygren agrees that prosecutors' offices across the state, including Marinette, are under-staffed. In fact, staffing levels for prosecutors have been virtually unchanged for a decade.
But Nygren says in recent budgets, prosecutors opted for pay raises for current staff rather than adding new positions. For example, four years ago, the state added $4.6 million to the budget to increase pay for assistant DA's.
"If their number want was pay progression, we gave them pay progression," Nygren said. "We weren't going to give them some that actually wasn't on their want list at that point in time."
Brey says DA's shouldn't have been forced to choose.
"We had to make a choice between: Do we try to get some pay for the people that we have so maybe we can retain them for a while. Or do we see more people walk out the door and get more inexperienced people that we don't have anyone around to train? It's a no win," Brey said.
The process for the next state budget is in the very early stages. Agencies have submitted their requests to the governor. DA's aren't part of their own state agency. They are overseen by the Department of Administration. Statewide, DA's have asked for a total of 96 new prosecutors, that includes two in Marinette County.